Causes of Hand Pain and Treatment Options

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hand pain

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The hand is one of the most amazing parts of your body. The complex organization of your hand involves bones, ligaments, tendons, nerves, skin, and other structures that allow your body to perform a complex variety of activities.

With the ability to perform both delicate movements and aggressive lifting, we ask a lot of our hands. As a result, this complex variety of functions can lead to a complex array of conditions that can cause discomfort in the hands. In fact, many orthopedic specialists dedicate their entire career to helping patients solve complex problems of the hand.

Trying to summarize all of the causes of hand pain in a single resource is an impossible task. However, there are some conditions that cause the vast majority of symptoms of hand pain. Here we will cover some of these more common causes of hand pain, and some of the signs that you may need further help in solving your problem.

Causes

As mentioned, there are many causes of hand pain, but the vast majority of people with discomfort have one of a few specific problems. Some of the more common causes include:

Arthritis

The hand is the most common part of the body to be affected by arthritis. In fact, arthritis should be considered a normal part of the aging process. The vast majority of people over the age of 60 develop findings of hand arthritis.

Hand arthritis is not abnormal, but some people are affected at an earlier age, and some have more severe symptoms. Most people with hand arthritis can find relief with nonsurgical treatments. Often by taking some simple steps, people can control the symptoms of hand arthritis and not require more invasive treatments.

Different types of arthritis can affect the hands. The most common type is osteoarthritis, but the hand is also a common location for rheumatoid arthritis to occur.

Tendinitis/Trigger Finger

Tendon problems are also a common source of hand pain. Tendonitis is a condition where inflammation occurs within or around a tendon. The normally smooth movement of hands and fingers can be affected, causing pain and swelling at the site of the inflammation.

Another common tendon problem occurs when the tendons to the fingers develop a nodular swelling, causing the finger to become stuck as it moves back and forth. When the tendon releases, it causes a snapping sensation known as a trigger finger.

Ligament Injury

Ligament injuries of the hands can occur as a result of trauma to the hand or fingers. The hand has 27 bones that are all connected by an elaborate network of ligaments. These ligaments allow for movement but prevent unstable joints.

Injuries to this network of ligaments can cause problems with simple activities such as bending, gripping, or pinching. Ligament injuries of the hand can take months for healing, and it is not uncommon for people to notice swelling and stiffness for a long time after a hand ligament problem.

Nerve Irritation

Several major nerves provide sensation to the hand, and injury or compression of these nerves will often lead to symptoms of hand pain.

The most common condition is carpal tunnel syndrome, which occurs when there is irritation or damage to the median nerve in the wrist. People with carpal tunnel syndrome will often complain of pain and numbness in specific parts of the hand. Other nerves can also be pinched; carpal tunnel syndrome is not the only nerve problem that causes hand pain. Cubital tunnel syndrome occurs when the ulnar nerve is pinched behind the elbow joint.

Fractures

Broken bones in the hand are an obvious source of hand pain. With 27 bones in the hand, there are a lot of different breaks that can occur and many different treatments depending on the specific injury.

Many breaks will heal with simple, nonsurgical treatment. However, any break should be carefully evaluated, as hand function is critical to many activities, and it is important to ensure that your treatment is appropriate. Most hand fractures will show up on a regular X-ray of the hand, but some injuries may require other studies to be seen by your doctor.

Ganglion Cysts

A ganglion cyst can occur anywhere in the body where fluid that is normally contained within a joint or tendon sheath accumulates into a pouch.

Ganglion cysts are common in the hands for two reasons. First, there are a lot of joints and tendon sheaths in the hand where a ganglion cyst can form. Second, people often notice the ganglions in the hands because they are visibly apparent under the skin.

Ganglion cysts cause pain in the hand when the cysts interfere with normal movements of the joints and tendons. There are other types of lumps and bumps that can occur on the hands, and if your bump is not a ganglion cyst, you can investigate some of the other causes of lumps and bumps on the hands.

There are many other less common causes of pain that should be considered if a more common problem is not identified. Your doctor can help determine the exact condition that is causing your symptoms, as this diagnosis will help to guide the most appropriate treatment.

When to See a Doctor

Most often, hand pain will resolve with some simple treatments. However, there are some conditions that require more urgent treatment by your doctor. Concerning signs include:

  • Signs of infection including redness, fevers, and chills
  • Deformity of the hand or fingers after an injury
  • Inability to bend the fingers or make a fist
  • Worsening numbness in the fingers or hand
  • Pain that does not improve with simple treatments

Diagnosis

Examination of the hand is a complex and in-depth topic. A skilled examiner can isolate specific joints, tendons, and ligaments to evaluate their function. Dozens of specific tests have been described to evaluate for the various different problems that can cause hand pain.

That said, most clinicians will perform a basic evaluation and then select specific tests focused on your individual problem.

Typical Examination

A typical examination will begin with an assessment of the following characteristics of your hand:

  • Appearance
  • Tenderness
  • Mobility
  • Stability
  • Strength

Many different imaging tests can be performed to evaluate hand function. The most common test is an X-ray of the hand. Performing an X-ray can be helpful to determine bone and joint health, alignment, and deformities of the hand. When further imaging is needed, tests may include ultrasound, CT scans, or MRI studies. Laboratory studies can be helpful if there is a concern of infection or autoimmune disorder.

Treatment

Most hand conditions will respond to a few simple treatments. Not every condition is best treated with each of these modalities, therefore be sure that you understand the cause of your symptoms before embarking on a treatment program.

  • Rest: Many causes of hand pain are the result of repetitive or overuse syndromes. These conditions typically occur after performing repetitive activities and will often resolve with rest. By avoiding the activity, symptoms of inflammation can subside and discomfort will often resolve with rest, time, and no further treatment.
  • Splints: In situations where the pain is more significant and rest does not adequately control symptoms, a simple splint or brace will allow the hand to rest and the inflammation to subside. People who have recurrent symptoms may wear a brace during an activity to prevent symptoms from flaring up.
  • Ice application: Ice is a useful tool to control inflammation and alleviate pain. By applying ice to an area of inflammation, you can reduce swelling while also controlling pain. Not everyone likes the feel of ice on their hands (they are a sensitive part of the body!), so this may not work for you.
  • Heat application: Heat application often works well too. Many people with recurrent hand problems find the heat soothes and loosens up their hand. By running warm water over your hands or wrapping a moist, warm compress around the hand, pain relief can be found.
  • Anti-inflammatory medications: Oral anti-inflammatory medications, called NSAIDs, are useful to relieve inflammation and pain. These medications can have side-effects, and you should check with your doctor before starting these medications. There are alternative to NSAIDs including natural therapies and Tylenol, both of which can be safe ways to relieve pain.
  • Hand therapy: Hand therapists are therapy experts of the hand. Often trained in occupational therapy, these specialists have many different modalities that can be applied to a variety of hand conditions. They can also help prevent recurrence of symptoms down the road.

A Word From Verywell

Hand function is critical to many activities that we perform every day. The hand comprises a complex arrangement of bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and nerves. Without proper functioning of any one of these structures, many normal activities can be difficult to perform. Hand pain is a common sign of injury to one of the structures of the hand. Evaluation of hand pain requires a careful history of the problem, an examination by an individual with knowledge of the complex function of the hand, and possibly studies that can image or test the function of the hand. By piecing together this complex puzzle of information, your doctor can help to guide the most appropriate treatment of your condition.

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